Through the blue haze that often hovers over the Great Smoky Mountains, one thing becomes crystal clear: this is a southern destination that’s as down home as a glass of sweet tea.
East Tennessee, which includes the Smokies and surrounding hills and towns, plus the city of Knoxville, is a somewhat hidden gem of a tourist destination, one that combines an old-time mountain heritage with the modern pulse of traffic-clogging attractions, as well as big-time college football.
The old-time heritage is the scenic Great Smoky Mountains with its banjo music, wooded hills, lush meadows and picturesque streams featuring clear water passing over smooth gray rocks. The attractions are the tourist stops of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville has a ranked college football team that plays in the rugged SEC.
East Tennessee, which often gets hidden to the outside world because of its country heritage, is in fact as addicting to tourists as a plate of good’ ol country biscuits & gravy. It’s the home of Rocky Top, so called because of its rocky soil, where the local folks have a “by golly” friendliness about them
This summer and fall it makes for an ideal vacation destination. Here are the highlights of this often overlooked area of America.
THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
In the Great Smoky Mountains there’s hiking, camping, and great spots for beautiful drives and picnics. The 8-mile Charlies Bunion trail runs along the edge of scenic drops and is a popular day hike.
The best place for picnics, and a whole lot more, is a gift from nature called Cade’s Cove. There is no finer splendor in East Tennessee than Cade’s Cove. It is here you’ll find distinctive East Tennessee creeks with their clear, cool water running over exposed rocks, winding through the woods and creating a view unseen anywhere else in America.
There is also the Cade’s Cove Loop Road, an 11-mile journey back through time. This narrow, one-way, up-and-down road meanders through early East Tennessee history, past an old one-room white church, in which people still get married to this day, log cabins, and a grist mill where water cascades over a churning wheel. You’ll probably see deer hopping a fence and perhaps a black bear crossing the road (these are not kindly creatures so give them their space). This is the ideal place to go after your picnic lunch; plan to spend at least two hours in this part of the park.
At one time, you could bike around the loop road but now it’s only open to bicycles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m., from May through September.
The Smoky Mountains National Park is free to enter. You have to go through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to get to it and that’s where the scenery and pace changes from being as slow as a Southern drawl to an almost Vegas-type of sensory overload.
PIGEON FORGE, GATLINBURG & SEVIERVILLE
The little town of Pigeon Forge – named after the narrow Pigeon River that runs through it – has so much to offer the tourist that just looking at all the options is likely to give you a headache.
In a way, it’s the Branson, Mo., of the East. There are theater shows, bungee jumping in a dome, a Titanic exhibition, Alcatraz East which is displaying O.J. Simpson’s white bronco and – of course – the Elvis Museum & Gift Shops.
If you want to visit a tourist attraction without a single tourist, take a selfie by the Dolly Parton statue in Sevierville. Parton is from here and her statue is by the Sevier County Courthouse, There’s hardly a soul at it because apparently few people even know about it, even some East Tennesseans.
Gatlinburg, snuggled up next to the Great Smokies park and home to the Ober Gatlinburg ski resort, is probably where you’ll want to stay for this trip. This is especially true if you pay a visit to one of its breweries, distilleries or wine tasting rooms.
There’s also a lot of outdoor adventures in this area: tubing, hiking and whitewater rafting among them, all in the lush woods, hills and valleys of East Tennessee. The Visit Sevierville website provides details.
The big city in these parts, as they say in these parts, is Knoxville. It’s mid-sized as far as cities go (though, it’s spread out over seemingly endless miles) and has as its centerpiece the University of Tennessee, or simply, UT. Its football team is one of the best in the nation and more than 100,000 orange-clad fans go to Neyland Stadium on fall Saturdays for games.
Knoxville is also home to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
A little to the south of Knoxville is a spot off I-75 in a town called Philadelphia where you can find an unexpected but very tasty treat. Sweetwater Valley Farm is a cheese farm that makes some of the most interesting and delicious cheeses you’ll find anywhere on the planet. The Italian Pesto is so good you’ll want to stuff your suitcase full of it, and for those who like things spicy, there’s the Fiery Fiesta.
East Tennessee is full of adventures, surprises and memorable experiences. It may be known as Rocky Top, but it’s a destination as smooth as those rocks in the Cade’s Cove streams.